TWIN FALLS — Over nearly two decades, Brent Jensen has seen the Twin Falls jazz scene grow up.
Now, you can find jazz performances at venues such as the Twin Falls Sandwich Company, Twin Beans Coffee and Von Scheidt Brewing.
But neither business was around when Jensen moved to Twin Falls 18 years ago to take a job as jazz studies director at the College of Southern Idaho.
“It’s Twin Falls, Idaho. Really, there’s no jazz thing there unless you fabricate it,” Jensen said. “Now, I feel like it’s going pretty good.”
But now, Jensen is moving on. In January, he decided he would retire from CSI at the end of this school year.
The day after the college’s two graduation ceremonies May 12, Jensen hopped in his car and drove up to the Seattle area, where he now lives.
“CSI is the longest time I’ve ever had a real job in my life,” Jensen said. “Most of the time, I’ve been a freelancer.”
He’s joining his wife in Everett, Wash., where she has lived for a year working as a school counselor.
The couple has owned a condominium there for a couple of years. They also have a daughter and toddler-aged granddaughter who live in the area.
Jensen wants to start a private studio to work with saxophone and jazz improvisation students. He planned to perform last week at the Ballard Jazz Festival.
On Thursday, he was watching his granddaughter and talked with the Times-News by phone as she took a nap.
‘Really reluctant to even take the job’
Jensen’s predecessor, Jim Mair, oversaw the CSI jazz program for four years and was “very, very popular there,” Jensen said.
CSI students had just participated in the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland the summer before Jensen was hired.
But Mair left that summer to take a college teaching job in Kansas City, Mo. He gave CSI officials a short list of three or four people he suggested for the job.
Jensen’s name was on the list. He’d never met Mair, but the two knew of each other.
At the time, Jensen was living in Boise, working as an adjunct professor of music at Boise State University and Northwest Nazarene University.
He was also artistic director for Jazz Sundays, a jazz workshop series. Plus, he was playing a lot of gigs, including as part of wedding bands.
That summer, Jensen was working at a weeklong jazz camp in Port Townsend, Wash., when a student told him there was a message posted on the camp bulletin board: CSI called and they want to offer you the jazz job.
“My resume was completely outdated,” Jensen said. But he went to the CSI campus later that summer for an interview.
“I was really reluctant to even take the job,” he said, and he turned it down initially. The timing didn’t seem right.
His wife was an elementary school counselor in Mountain Home and was carpooling from Boise. His daughter was going into fifth grade. And the family had just bought a new house.
But in less than a month, they were moving into the Russell Square Apartments on Elizabeth Boulevard as their first place in Twin Falls.
‘Really good students’
For the first few years leading CSI’s jazz program, one of the highlights for Jensen was continuing a jazz summit each January, where area high schoolers and guest artists came to perform.
It was called the CSI Blues & Jazz Summit, an event Mair had started.
The jazz summit drew large crowds of participants like the 600 student musicians from southern Idaho, Utah and Washington during the 2000 event.
In addition to leading CSI’s jazz program, Jensen played saxophone around Twin Falls in venues including CSI’s student union building, Twin Beans Coffee Co., Twin Falls Sandwich Co., First Fridays at Rudy’s — A Cook’s Paradise and Java.
And he played at events like Jazz in the Canyon, later renamed to Jazz on the Canyon.
“We always had something going,” Jensen said. He later added: “In general, I think there’s more live music happening now than several years ago. Before, it was mostly karaoke.”
Jensen said it wasn’t in his job description to foster a local jazz scene, but he took up the cause.
During his last CSI Jazz Ensemble concert earlier this month, college students collaborated with students from Jerome and Wendell high schools.
“I’m hoping the new person will be able to do that, too,” Jensen said, and foster outreach.
Over the years, some of his graduates have continued on to become music teachers – some, even as adjunct instructors at CSI.
“I had a lot of really good students,” Jensen said. “I was lucky to have some pretty talented players.”
It’s a job that had its rewards. “You feel like you’ve kind of passed it along to another generation,” he said.
‘A gifted giver’
CSI President Jeff Fox, who’s also a jazz musician, performed hundreds of gigs with Jensen over the years.
Jensen’s impact is far reaching, Fox said, through the number of students he influenced and by bringing a level of understanding of jazz to the community.
Jensen was adept at the art and science of jazz, Fox said, including a vast knowledge of song forms, music theory and experimental aspects of improvisation. He called his friend a “genius at the science of jazz.”
“He could play virtually every piece of music in any key without any music,” Fox said. “He had an incredible sense of humor musically that way.”
And for students, “he really inspired those young people to live outside the box,” Fox said.
Jensen recorded several albums with Seattle-based Origin Records, with “The Sound of a Dry Martini” being the most well known.
Jensen also traveled across Idaho recruiting students for CSI’s jazz program and adjudicating events.
“He spent a lot of time trying to get young people into jazz the best he could,” Fox said.
As a professor, Jensen had little patience for students who were trying to blow things off, Fox said. “I appreciated that about him.”
But Jensen was constantly giving back. If he made a profit on one of his CDs, he’d write a check to the CSI Jazz Club, Fox said. And he focused on bringing high-quality musicians from across the United States to CSI for concerts.
“Brent is a gifted giver,” Fox said. “He takes his talents to the people.”
Jensen is always striving for excellence, he added, but can be self-deprecating and feels he’s never good enough.
A couple of years ago, Jensen collaborated with other CSI fine arts professors to create the Stage Door Series, a grassroots cooperative of innovative performances.
“I think Brent was a huge part of that,” Fox said.
In the jazz world, Jensen is a modernist, Fox said. “That’s probably the impact he had on Twin Falls more than anything. He brought that perspective. He helped people learn how to listen to music.”